This article was originally posted on http://www.chiplitfest.com/blog/guest-blog-pitching-to-agents when I was asked to write on this topic for the 2014 Chipping Norton Literature Festival.
Pitching to an Agent
I’ve pitched to sixteen agents to-date: twelve via email and four face-to-face, and below are a few tips for anyone considering this route.
- Know your story. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Of course you know your story, you wrote it, but hopefully by the time you’re ready to pitch to an agent you’ve put it away for at least a couple of weeks – ideally more – so you’ve forgotten enough to review / edit it with a slightly more detached part of your brain. And yes, you should have written the entire novel, ideally more than one or at least have ideas (preferably synopses) for more. Readers, and therefore agents and publishers love series.
- Do your homework. Research the agents before you submit to them. There is usually more than one agent at an agency so make sure you’re sending the right genre of novel to the right person. There is no excuse these days with most agencies having comprehensive websites detailing who does what. Keep everything professional – call the agent Mr Smith rather than heading your letter Dear John.
- When you’re submitting via email, just because the agent isn’t sitting in front of you, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to impress them. It’s more important – when they don’t have you there to ask questions – to give them all the information they ask for in their guidelines, and read them thoroughly before, during and after, you put together your submission.
- Allow the timescale they indicate on their website. Don’t phone them up the day after you hit the ‘send’ button asking whether they’ve read it yet. If they say to allow up to eight weeks for a reply, wait nine. Then you can send them a follow-up email. Some agencies don’t reply but state if you’ve not heard within x weeks, you’ve not been successful. The cogs of the traditional writing industry can whirr slowly, be patient.
- What to say? When pitching live, the agent will likely have already received your cover letter, synopsis and extract, but they’ll still want you to pitch to them. This is where your ‘elevator pitch’ comes in. Imagine you’re in a lift and can tell him / her about your novel but only during the time it takes to travel three floors, e.g. ‘From warring families, Romeo & Juliet know they can’t be together but marry in secret. The feuding escalates and confusion arises, but Juliet is offered a drug to fake her own death, with a message being sent to Romeo of the plan. A servant tells him of her ‘death’ and Romeo kills himself so he can join her. She wakes and finds him so stabs herself. Their deaths bring the families together and peace is restored.’ Useful practice: write a tagline (20 words maximum) e.g. 31 men in 31 days – what could possibly go wrong? Now expand your tagline to the c.100-word elevator pitch and you should find that’s enough.
- Read your submission (the letter, synopsis and extract) out loud. Does it make sense? Are there any errors that you may not have spotted when reading it inside your head? Now is the time to amend them, not once you’ve hit the submit button.
- How could they not like your pride and joy? Rejections are part and parcel of writing life. No writer (unless they’ve never submitted, or submitted little and been extremely fortunate) has never received a rejection. It hurts. It really hurts. But it gets easier. At least the advantage of an email rejection is that you can sob into your hanky in private. But once you’ve done that, put it in your rejection file and put it down to experience, quietly hoping that the other submissions – yes, you can send multiples – will fair better.
Was it scary pitching face-to-face? Absolutely. But it was also a fantastic opportunity. I had ten minutes to sell my baby and although two told me that they were only looking for historical and crime, one looked me square in my face, as the cliché goes, and said, “You’re a crime writer, you need to write crime.” It turns out, seven novels later, that I do.